By Ed Wills, managing director, Brighton & Hove and Metrobus
Hydrogen might still be a niche technology in the zero-emission vehicle world, but it could be a technology with a serious part to play on the path to zero emissions.
The typical range of an electric bus between charges is 150 to 180 miles. In the medium term, it is possible that battery improvement could lift this to 250 miles – but there are still bus services for which this is insufficient: Metrobus’s buses in the Gatwick Airport area run around the clock, with some covering 300 miles in a 24-hour period.
Unless battery technology dramatically improves to provide better range and capacity electric vehicles will struggle with the considerable number of longer distance or more intense bus and coach routes across the length and breadth of the UK.
Adding additional vehicles into the cycle to compensate for range is not an economical or sustainable solution, particularly when considering the no doubt significant environmental impact of batteries over the longer term.
Hydrogen could therefore play a significant part in allowing more intensive and longer distance routes a clear and sustainable path to zero emissions with more equivalency to the range and operational realities of diesel vehicles.
Charging a hydrogen bus takes less than 10 minutes – allowing operators to get intensively used vehicles back out onto the road quickly.
There is significant work ahead. The hydrogen fuel supply chain is fragile and patchy and while developing all the time, does not have the dependability of supply that we almost take for granted with diesel.
Until a robust and established supply chain exists, which in turn will deliver efficiencies, operators will not want to commit to hydrogen, when the price per KG could equally vary significantly.
Our limited experience has shown reasonable range performance from a KG of hydrogen to the equivalent fuel consumed by a diesel vehicle. It is early days, however, in understanding the best ways efficiency could improve.
How much does driving style impact consumption and can vehicles be optimised for better performance for the routes being operated? If improvements are delivered and sustained it will help improve the case for hydrogen.
A key benefit of hydrogen is it provides certainty of range. Unlike electric when the temperature can reduce range by a significant percentage, or impacted by the efficiency of the battery, or passenger load on the vehicle, hydrogen can provide more certainty by allowing closer consistency to diesel.
As the vehicle ages, it should continue to be capable of providing a similar range daily. This has clear operational and efficiency benefits that need to be realised over the life of the vehicle. However, while this is theoretical. presently it is one of the key aspects that needs to be managed carefully over the coming years to help improve the business case for hydrogen.
The capital cost of hydrogen is also expensive. Almost double the cost of a standard diesel vehicle. This means commercially it is difficult to justify until we understand more about the life cost and the ongoing operational and maintenance costs of the vehicles. If hydrogen is more expensive to maintain it will not help with its credentials or its viability using a fuel cell solution.
However, it is conceivable that the technology may evolve further with JCB for example developing a zero-emission hydrogen combustion engine, if this is achieved, it might transform the current thinking regarding hydrogen’s viability, even if more gas is required when burnt.
Hydrogen or electric is perhaps the Betamax/VHS of our era but, as it stands, I feel it might need to be a combination of both, or something not yet quite on the market, that is needed to help our full transition to zero emissions.
* Hydrogen-powered public transport is the topic of Smart Transport’s June digital issue, which you can read here.
* Ed Wills will speak as part of a hydrogen-powered public transport session at this year's Smart Transport National Conference, taking place at The Eastside Rooms, Birmingham, 21-22 November.